YOM KIPPUR LETTER TO CLERGY & COMMUNAL LEADERS
Dear Rabbis, Cantors, and Jewish Communal Leaders,
As Yom Kippur approaches, we-- A Mitzvah to Eat* and Chronic Congregation**-- urge you to reflect on your role as a leader of a community where many, but not all, members are able to safely fast. While fasting is a sacred and meaningful practice for many, for others it can be dangerous to their physical, mental, and/or emotional well-being.
As Jewish leaders, your community members may seek your permission to eat or ask for guidance on whether to fast or eat on Yom Kippur. It’s important to be aware of the potential for harm inherent in these interactions.
To avoid causing harm to community members, please ask those who feel uncertain about how fasting will affect them to consult with their health professional prior to speaking with you. If the health professional cautions against fasting or even eating/drinking less than usual, be sure not to disregard their guidance. Additionally, if you plan to encourage those who are uncertain to try to fast, please do so only if the person says that dangerous symptoms could not occur suddenly. Please suggest that prior to the fast, they identify which symptoms are warning signs for serious illness. Ensure that they know that it is their mitzvah to eat/drink immediately if they experience them. Unfortunately, without this guidance, some people who are advised to try to fast will fast far beyond what is safe for them, resulting in serious illness that may linger days after Yom Kippur.
Please understand that there are myriad reasons why someone may need to eat/drink on Yom Kippur, including, but not limited to, eating disorders, regulating blood sugar, trauma, taking medications, depression, acute illness, risk of fainting, etc. Each person-- regardless of diagnosis, condition, or disability status-- must be embraced and supported on this holy day, without incurring shame for their need to eat.
Here are a few concrete ways that you can offer support:
If someone asks you for permission or guidance around eating on Yom Kippur, listen deeply. If they are worried about not observing Yom Kippur ‘correctly’, consider telling them that their mitzvah is to eat. Please consider providing them with our compilation of prayers to say while eating on Yom Kippur (coming soon on the A Mitzvah to Eat website), which can bring holiness and meaning to this act of self-preservation.
If someone who needs to eat expresses concern about isolation and being separate from the community, please know that this feeling might severely affect them, to the point where they may attempt to fast. As a clergy member or leader, you have the power to reduce this suffering by connecting them to others who need to eat-- either those who live in your community, or through A Mitzvah to Eat and Chronic Congregation's online communities (see below).
Those who need to eat on Yom Kippur would like to be able to pray with their communities, but they frequently find no space in which to eat. Please consider designating a room or area in your building/prayer space for eating. In that space, perhaps provide our prayer guide to support the sanctification of eating on Yom Kippur. Think about providing snacks and drinks as well in case someone unexpectedly needs to eat. If you have a children’s area, this space should be separate.
If having a designated eating space is new to your community, you might explain it in the following way: “People who can fast without harm have a mitzvah to fast on Yom Kippur. However, if fasting is harmful, it is a mitzvah to eat. For those who must eat, please know that you are not alone. We are designating ___ as a space to be in community with others who need to eat. There, you’ll find rituals and blessings to say if you’d like. The space will be available for the duration of Yom Kippur.”
Please consider the greetings that you model for your congregation. ‘Tzom Kal’ is a popular one-- reflect on how saying this might feel to those unable to fast.
If you recite a prayer for fasting, please also consider including a prayer for those who need to eat. Please remind your community of the designated eating area, so that everyone who needs the space can access it.
We thank you in advance for your partnership in supporting those who must eat on Yom Kippur. We are here to serve as resources.
Wishing each of you Shanah Tovah u’Metukah.
Sarah Osborne (founder) and the A Mitzvah to Eat team
Rabbi Emily Aronson, founder of Chronic Congregation
Connect with our communities online:
Access and share this letter as a Google doc.
*A Mitzvah to Eat supports those who need to connect to fast days and mitzvot differently to protect their health, save their lives, or reduce their suffering. We empower individuals and communities with learning, prayers, and resources to bring holiness to acts of self-preservation.
**Chronic Congregation provides community for Jews with chronic illness and/or disability; raises awareness of and reframes how Judaism has traditionally discussed disability and illness; offers new prayers and rituals that reflect the lived experience of disabled and chronically ill Jews.